Haidt: The Like-O-Meter

From The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt.


The most important words in the elephant’s language are “like” and “dislike,” or “approach” and “withdraw.” Even the simplest animal must make decisions at every moment: Left or right? Go or stop? Eat or don’t eat? Animals with brains complex enough to have emotions make these decisions effortlessly and automatically by having what is sometimes called a “like-o-meter” running in their heads at all times. If a monkey tasting a new fruit feels a sweet sensation, its like-o-meter registers “I like it”; the monkey feels pleasure and bites right in. If the taste is bitter, a flash of displeasure discourages further eating. There’s no need for a weighing of pros and cons, or for a reasoning system. Just flashes of pleasure and displeasure.

We humans have a like-o-meter too, and it’s always running. Its influence is subtle, but careful experiments show that you have a like-dislike reaction to everything you are experiencing, even if you’re not aware of the experience. For example, suppose you are a participant in an experiment on what is known as “affective priming.” You sit in front of a computer screen and stare at a dot in the center. Every few seconds, a word is flashed over the dot. All you have to do is tap a key with your left hand if the word means something good or likable (such as garden, hope, fun), or tap a key with your right hand if the word means something bad or dislikable (death, tyranny, boredom). It seems easy, but for some reason you find yourself hesitating for a split second on some of the words. Unbeknownst to you, the computer is also flashing up another word, right on the dot, just for a few hundredths of a second before putting up the target word you’re rating. Though these words are presented subliminally (below the level of your awareness), your intuitive system is so fast that it reads and reacts to them with a like-o-meter rating. If the subliminal word is fear, it would register negative on your like-o-meter, making you feel a tiny flash of displeasure; and then, a split second later, when you see the word boredom, you would more quickly say that boredom is bad. Your negative evaluation of boredom has been facilitated, or “primed,” by your tiny flash of negativity toward fear. If, however, the word following fear is garden, you would take longer to say that garden is good, because of the time it takes for your like-o-meter to shift from bad to good. 9

The discovery of affective priming in the 1980s opened up a world of indirect measurement in psychology. It became possible to bypass the rider and talk directly to the elephant, and what the elephant has to say is sometimes disturbing. For example, what if, instead of flashing subliminal words, we use photographs of black and white faces? Researchers have found that Americans of all ages, classes, and political affiliations react with a flash of negativity to black faces or to other images and words associated with African-American culture. 10 People who report being unprejudiced against blacks show, on average, a slightly smaller automatic prejudice, but apparently the rider and the elephant each have an opinion. (You can test your own elephant at: http://www.projectimplicit.com.) Even many African Americans show this implicit prejudice, although others show an implicit preference for black faces and names. On balance, African Americans come out with no implicit bias either way.

One of the most bizarre demonstrations of the like-o-meter in action comes from the work of Brett Pelham, 11 who has discovered that one’s like-o-meter is triggered by one’s own name. Whenever you see or hear a word that resembles your name, a little flash of pleasure biases you toward thinking the thing is good. So when a man named Dennis is considering a career, he ponders the possibilities: “Lawyer, doctor, banker, dentist . . . dentist . . . something about dentist just feels right.” And, in fact, people named Dennis or Denise are slightly more likely than people with other names to become dentists. Men named Lawrence and women named Laurie are more likely to become lawyers. Louis and Louise are more likely to move to Louisiana or St. Louis, and George and Georgina are more likely to move to Georgia. The own-name preference even shows up in marriage records: People are slightly more likely to marry people whose names sound like their own, even if the similarity is just sharing a first initial. When Pelham presented his findings to my academic department, I was shocked to realize that most of the married people in the room illustrated his claim: Jerry and Judy, Brian and Bethany, and the winners were me, Jon, and my wife, Jayne.

The unsettling implication of Pelham’s work is that the three biggest decisions most of us make—what to do with our lives, where to live, and whom to marry—can all be influenced (even if only slightly) by something as trivial as the sound of a name. Life is indeed what we deem it, but the deeming happens quickly and unconsciously. The elephant reacts instinctively and steers the rider toward a new destination.

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